Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Stieglitz, the 291 Gallery -- homage from my Fuji X-T1

The Photo District in New York is an area around the junction of 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue in what is now considered the "Flatiron District".  I, like many New York photographers who came to the city in the latter part of the 20th century, call this area home. This is where we had our studios. This is where the pro camera stores were located to serve us, and is where many of the top ads and editorial images of the 20th century were created.

Slightly north of this area, between 30th and 31st Streets is where Alfred Stieglitz has his famous 291 Gallery from 1905-1917.

The Flatiron Building was a major skyscraper in the New York City in 1904. It had just been completed in 1902 and instantly became a defining element in the city landscape, a position it maintains even today. The building and the area around it became a magnet for painters and photographers. Two famous photographs -- one by Edward Steichen, the other by Alfred Stieglitz -- are shown below. Both were captured on a stormy winter day.

Gum bichromate over platinum print of the Flatiron Building and horse drawn cabs by Edward Steichen in 1904. 

This photo of a taxi and the Flatiron Building was taken from almost the exact location as Steichen's photo above it except that I had to move further out into the street because of the new street traffic pattern set up a few years ago. 

Photogravure print of the Flatiron Building in snow, Alfred Stieglitz, 1903.

I have worked in this area for decades. Currently, I live just around the corner from where the 291 Gallery stood -- the building demolished a long time ago and replaced with a large, non-descript edifice. Yesterday evening I went to the area where both Stieglitz and Steichen took there photos. As I stood in the exact spot where Stiechen photographed the cab drivers with the Flatiron behind it I thought about how difficult it must have been on a cold winter evening of 1904 to be there with a large, cumbersome camera on a tripod. Here I was with the latest in digital cameras, a Fuji X-T1 camera -- now thankfully weather resistant -- equipped with an 18-135mm zoom and enough vibration reduction and high ISO capability to do-away with the necessity of any tripod at all.

I walked around the park, then up Fifth Avenue to where 291 once stood, taking pictures along the way and passing dozens of smart-phone equipped pedestrians snapping away at the scene with an ease that would have left Steichen and Stieglitz scratching their heads in wonderment just over 110 years ago. 

The steeple from the Marble Collegiate Church, built in the 1850's, would have been standing at the time just a block down from the 291 Gallery. The Empire State Building would not have been there at the turn of the century, although both photographers would have been around to see it completed in 1931. 

The Flatiron Building photographed at dusk and framed by trees in Madison Square Park.

At dusk color from the lights of the Empire State Building bleed into the cloudy sky and falling snow to provide a monochromatic tone to this close up view.

Very early in the morning, around 4AM, the city took on a ghostly appearance. Passing clouds absorb the city lights providing a bright backdrop for this abandoned scene taken with the Fuji 10-24mm zoom.

These images were taken in pretty much the same area of the city as my previous blog post. I have often said that what we should photograph is the effect changing weather has on a scene. Combining weather phenomena with a scene is what gives it a special quality that makes uniquely your own, and is also how some photographers can photograph the same scene over and over again but end up with a new picture each time. I sometimes use this type of repetitive effort as a way to hone my photographic skills. It forces me to create from my inner vision of what life is like at the given moment.

In this image taken at 10mm with the Fuji 10-24mm zoom I liked the way the warm glow of the crossing streets near the bottom echo the same color at the yellow light on top of the Empire State Building.


  1. nice post, tom. as a professional photographer i've met a lot of photographers along the way who themselves had met others... shaking hands with one of these folks ties you in a real way to the history of photography, as their handshakes with others connect them to masters of the past... kind of like linkedin -- a connection you know knows someone who can introduce you to X... and speaking of X, Tom, this xt1 -- such a small sensor ... it's just not the same as the canon 5d which i use. i don't trust it for a cover or double page spread -- it's sharp, yes, but just doesn't have the same info as a "full frame" sensor. do you agree?

    1. National geographic has a requirement of 6mp on your dslr. Maybe they should hire you so that you can school them on good gear, Anonymous.

    2. thanks, Amos! really appreciate that. i'm calling them now !!!
      not everyone prints with Nat Geo's care, where you can really massage a file. i did a coffee table book once, and ran a double page spread from a 6MP file, carefully tweaked. i know it can be done.
      i'm just curious to know if someone who works at a high level, like Tom, believes that the Fuji cameras are All That.
      take care, buddy

    3. All things being equal, nothing really trumps sensor size -- the bigger the better. But the qualifier is: "All things being equal", and that is not always the case. I shoot with Nikons professionally (D4, D810, and D750). These are truly superb cameras are tough to beat with a smaller APS sensor, if we use the images at their size -- which is not always the case. I do a lot of traditional stock photography where a 50mp image is standard. It only takes 17.5mp to deliver that size. So any D810 103mp image I take has to be down sized to 50mb, while the 16mp Fuji sensor is going to deliver a 47.3mp image and would only need a very small amount of up-sizing. End product? Both of these images are going to look very similar at 50mb.

      On the other hand, making a 16x24" print from the image is a different story. The D810 requires no up-sizing, while the Fuji X sensor needs to go up 150% to hit that target and, no, the image is not going to look as good as that from the D810 at that size.

      Bottom line is: Try to match the camera to the end use of the image. I do a lot of art prints in a 12x12" and 11x16" sizes. I use the Fuji a lot for this work. I also like the film quality of the images coming from the Fuji. This is a subjective choice, but for me a slight bit of noise actually mimics the look of grain a bit and keeps the images looking like they might have been shot on a film camera. This is especially true with black and white photos, which is primarily what I do for my fine art.

      I have always believed in fitting the camera to the job. In the days of film I shot with Nikons, Leicas, Hasselblad, and 4x5, and used whatever the end result required. Today I do pretty much the same thing except that digital sensors are much finer than film so we can go down at least one size to equal them out. (eg. APS = 35mm film, FF = medium format).

      A final word: The end result is only going to be as good as the photographer's technique. A sloppy photographer -- a lot of hand held, high ISO's -- is never going to beat a conscientious use of a camera used at low ISO on a tripod. Digital today is so damn good we tend to push the envelope. I am as guilty as anyone in that regard. But when I really want the highest quality for a large blow-up, I go back to basics and use the best equipment I can in the best way I know how.

      Hope that answers you question. - Tom

  2. Thank you for taking the time to answer, really appreciate it.
    And that new post -- the sunsets -- magnificent.
    keep going!
    thanks again